Big Sister (Film Review: “Winter’s Bone”)

The Ozark backwoods story and translucent performance that started it all for Jennifer Lawrence, proving she had the grit and grace to become the star she is today.



SnapShot Plot

Long before Katniss Everdeen’s epic journey in the Hunger Games shot Jennifer Lawrence’s career off like an arrow, there was Winter’s Bone.  In this contemporary 2010 film, Lawrence plays 17 year old Ree Dolly, whose semi catatonic mother and younger siblings rely on for their very existence, the crushing burden of which is almost palpable. In her every word and deed, from chopping wood to scrabbling together something to feed her hungry family, you witness the sober reality of Ree’s life and the grim prospects for her future. The family is among an intertwined community of distantly related clan living in dirt poor conditions in the Ozark mountains of Missouri, but this is no Waltons TV show. These cousins, aunts and uncles have their own code of living, and its both brutal and violent.

A central – yet missing – character at the heart of the story is Ree’s father, Jessup, who has been absent for quite some time, having gotten in serious trouble with the law for his nefarious criminal activities. What Ree discovers is that she’s got little more than a week to locate her father and convince him to show up for his trial date, or else lose the house and the property which he put up for his bond. This entails navigating the dangerous and treacherous terrain of darkly violent characters, many of whom are related to her, in order to find her father and bring him to justice, all in order to keep her struggling family together.




Parting Shot

The character of Ree Dolly can clearly be seen as a primer for Lawrence’s future, star-making turn as Katniss Everdeen in the wildly successful Hunger Games franchise. After all, both Ree and Katniss are oldest daughters with functionally absent mothers, caring for and protecting younger siblings with no complaint and utter devotion, living in impoverished communities and relying on their hunting skills to put food on the table (in one the backwoods of the Ozarks and in the other, the beleaguered District 12 in Panem).

Winter’s Bone originally came out as a novel by Daniel Woodrell, published in 2006. It was then picked up by director, Debra Granik (she co-authored the screenplay with Anne Rosellini), who actually filmed on location in the Ozark mountains, and used a respected member of that community to negotiate the kind of access the crew needed to get the details and nuances of local life just right. The casting is exceptional, with a sly and unpredictable John Hawkes as Ree’s uncle, Teardrop, who begrudgingly assists her on her quest to find his brother. All the female characters were totally believable as harsh and suspicious mountain women, and the dynamic between Ree and her siblings rang completely true. As was the dialogue, which at times was actually hard to follow for how seemingly accurate it was to the actual accent of the place.

The film remains on the top ten lists of countless movie critics and was highly critically acclaimed when it was released. It also received four Academy Award nominations in the categories of: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor.

Ree Dolly is the kind of feminist character who is to be remembered, and Jennifer Lawrence’s depiction of her as the strong and stubborn girl who just grit her teeth and did what she had to do to save her family will forever be regarded as an early highlight of a career. It’s that the role and the performance were so natural – instead of politically emblematic – that make Winter’s Bone a movie whose takeaway is so personal and moving.

Winter’s Bone is presently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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